Last night (18th February 2020) John spoke in a Member’s debate on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s decision to enrol pupils entering P1 into Gaelic-medium education (GME) as the default choice. You can read and watch John’s speech below.
“Moran taing is gabhaibh mo leisgeul. Chan eil ach beagan Gaidhlig agam. Mar as àbhaist, feumaidh mi Beurla a bhruidhinn.
I give my usual apology as I speak only a little Gaelic, Presiding Officer. I congratulate Dr Allan for lodging the motion and acknowledge how well crafted it is.
The motion lays out very precisely the aspects that need to be covered in debate. The first two paragraphs emphasise choice. No one is denying choice: the decision is an opportunity to increase availability of Gaelic medium education, driven largely by demand for it, which is to be welcomed. As the motion notes,
“the percentage of children entering GME in Na h-Eileanan an Iar has steadily increased over the last decade”
“55% was an action in the council’s statutory Gaelic Language Plan.”
I am ambivalent about plans: they are great if they are acted on, but too often they sit in nice folders on shelves, gathering dust. It is great to see such action being taken. The council is to be commended.
The motion refers to a
“progressive step to consolidate the national language in its heartland communities”,
which is very important.
On many occasions in Parliament, we have discussed the benefits of bilingualism. I have four grandchildren, two of whom are bilingual and fluent in Gaelic and two of whom are trilingual, also speaking Catalan and Castilian, as they call it. The benefits and the outward-looking approach that speaking other languages gives people should be widely recognised—indeed, the benefits are recognised in numerous academic studies. The motion alludes to the evidence that GME pupils outperform their English-medium education peers in English reading by primary 5. That is a very interesting statistic.
As has been touched on, there is a role for all of us in Parliament in promoting Gaelic—not as tokenism, but meaningfully. It would be very easy in a debate, particularly a members’ business debate, to be nice and cosy and cuddly, but we have to confront some things. What I would like to confront has been touched on—the comments of the Conservative Party’s since-shunted education spokesperson, who described the commendable steps as “deeply troubling”. Dr Allan talked about the deep hurt that it had caused. It is a deep hurt. People in the Highlands and Islands are sick of folk telling them how to do things. The Conservative Party spokesperson said that the children would be at a “distinct disadvantage” to their peers—clearly, that is completely erroneous—and that Gaelic should not be taught “at the expense of English”. English is more than capable of standing up for itself.
We heard from Rhoda Grant about people being belted for speaking Gaelic; perhaps Donald Cameron will know whether people have been belted. Ignorance is not offset by an apology, but I do not think that what we heard from the Conservative spokesperson was an apology. To the ignorant, I would say “Measar an t-amadan glic ma chumas e a theanga.” Of course, ignorance is widespread.
People have mentioned Highland Council and the demands that are placed on its school estate. Indeed, I have raised those demands with the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. I have also raised with Highland Council the fact that it has been given £4 million by the Scottish Government that it is yet to do anything with. To have a Gaelic medium education school overflowing is intolerable. Public money should be dispersed in the proper way.
In the short time that I have left, there are many positive things that could be said. As members have said, it is not a party political issue. I was delighted, and not remotely surprised, to hear the positive comments by my colleague Donald Cameron, which were consistent with the view that should prevail across this chamber. Once again, I thank Dr Allan for bringing the debate to Parliament.”
The Motion debated was:
That the Parliament welcomes Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s decision to enrol pupils entering P1 into Gaelic-medium education (GME) as the default choice; recognises that parents can still choose to put their children into English-medium education (EME); further recognises that this decision was taken as a majority of parents were expected to enrol their children into GME in 2020; notes that the percentage of children entering GME in Na h-Eileanan an Iar has steadily increased over the last decade; further notes that increasing the level of GME enrolment to 55% was an action in the council’s statutory Gaelic Language Plan; commends Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for becoming the first council in Scotland to take this policy decision; further commends the council for taking what it sees as this progressive step to consolidate the national language in its heartland communities; understands that there is an overwhelming consensus among academics and researchers in support of the cognitive benefits of bilingual education, and reiterates the findings of the 2010 study by the University of Edinburgh, which it understands outlined evidence that GME pupils, on a whole, outperform their EME peers in English reading by P5.